Revolting editors, a six-figure check and a whole lot of vampires
It was late May 2009 when the news broke.
Gawker, the blog network with a publisher that declared a media apocalypse just months before, announced it had purchased BloodCopy, a blog about vampires.
Soon, media outlets such as Silicon Alley Insider were reporting about the unexpected Gawker expansion. There was just one problem: BloodCopy was fake.
Instead, the vampire blog was the latest generation of custom publishing, a three-week advertising campaign that was paid for by HBO to promote ‘True Blood,” a drama about vampires.
"Gawker has one of the more active audiences,” said Jeremiah Rosen, a partner at the advertising firm Campfire. “They feel like they own it.” The Campfire team felt the campaign would work, Rosen said, “if we could insert our client's property into their conversation in a way that they would respect.”
Campfire, the agency behind the groundbreaking Blair Witch Project advertisements, took a similar approach with its 'True Blood' campaign. The agency went as far as co-opting advertisements with existing brands – one ad for Mini invited vampires to purchase a branded Cooper sports car to “feel the wind in your fangs.”
Operations by Gawker, content by both
The content for the campaign was partially fueled by Campfire’s “reality acts,” where the firm would create content that acted as if vampires truly existed. For example, Campfire sent out invitations for a party that urged attendees not to wear any silver and compiled fake newscasts about vampires.
The BloodCopy blog wasn’t a new Gawker property, but it wasn’t exactly an advertisement either. The blog was ghostwritten by Gawker's Megan Gilbert, and hosted and administered by the blog network.
“It was more an advertising process than a journalistic process to ‘publishing’,” said Gawker VP of Sales Chris Batty. The blog had an art director and a copy writer, much like any other advertisement.
The only rule was that the blogger could not speak critically of Warner Brothers, HBO or Campfire. The posts also appeared as cross-posted from another Gawker property without the distinction – at first – of being advertisements.
The separation of church and state
Almost immediately after the announcement, many, including Gawker.com’s editor, decried the campaign as blurring the line between editorial and advertising.
“Gawker Media has been taken to the media criticism woodshed over this one,” wrote the then Gawker Editor-in-chief Gabriel Snyder the day the campaign launched. “What's advertising should be called advertising and what's edit should be called edit. It hurts both to blur the distinction.” (Update: Synder is now at The Atlantic)
"No one had told the head writer at Gawker or [Gawker’s popular gadget blog] Gizmodo, and they threw a shit fit and they essentially stopped operations there,” said Rosen.
The unorthodox campaign had ignited a new conversation about the wall between editorial and advertising.
"My client was thrilled and couldn’t have been happier [about the controversy], " said Rosen. “All that weird publicity for Gawker was positive publicity for 'True Blood'."
Was it worth it?
The pricing of the campaign factored in the costs of Gawker setting up a new blog as well as advertising rates that were higher than a site wrap, Gawker’s most encompassing ad offering. All BloodCopy content that was cross-posted was essentially an indirect advertising buy by HBO.
Though he declined to cite specific numbers, Rosen said that Gawker received six figures from the promotion, and the “True Blood” premiere pulled HBO’s biggest ratings since the series finale of The Sopranos.
"You don’t do that with banner ads,” said Rosen. “You know the audience and you know what they want and you need to bake the brand’s equity into that content without making it so overt or sales-y."
Both Gawker and Campfire believe that the Bloodcopy campaign can re replicated, it’s just a matter of finding the right client that matches the goals and audience of the publication.
“You need a client that can turnaround approval very quickly,” said Batty, “Readers are coming back to the site everyday to find out what’s going on with your custom publishing, branded content, whatever you want to call it, narrative and you have to be responsive to that.”
For Gawker, the campaign showed advertisers the type of interaction their brand could create.
“It has attracted exactly the kind of attention from the advertising community that I wanted to draw,” said Batty who said that the success of BloodCopy has led to other ad buys involving branded content.
Similar to print, custom publishing on the Web needs the right brand to be matched with the right publisher. However, unlike print, online campaigns can exist across multiple mediums and formats.
“You can do it through snazzy writing, pictures, videos ... all of that stuff when you pull it together is an experience that can earn attention," said Rosen.